For many years I have written about the necessity of extending the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse in order to afford them the needed time to both process the psychological and emotional effects of the abuse and gain the inner wherewithal to confront their abusers and those who enabled them. In this blog, I want to share with you the valuable insights of my colleague and co-worker Courtney Kiehl concerning New York’s proposed Child Victims Act. This year the legislation is closer than it has ever been to getting enacted. Ms. Kiehl, as both an attorney and survivor of childhood sexual abuse by her gymnastics coach, opens a unique window of understanding on this issue.
After years of fighting, now is the time for New York to pass the Child Victims Act. Due to recent events such as the #MeToo movement, we’ve heard countless stories detailing the extreme and painful challenges faced by survivors when coming forward to speak out against their abusers and the institutions who enable them. Individuals and institutions with money and power have silenced and shamed survivors for decades. The last thing any survivor wants or needs is to have to fight to be supported and believed.
I was abused by my gymnastics coach and came forward just a couple of weeks before my 14th birthday. It was Monday, January 26, 2004 – just one day after I’d learned I wasn’t his only victim. I had a morning workout; it was just he and I on the floor and his wife who was also my coach, working in the front office. I was disgusted after learning that he sexually abused my teammates and best friends. He told me I had a bad attitude and I needed to go sit in the locker room until I was ready to come back and work. For the first time, I didn’t care that he was mad at me. I sat on the wooden bench staring at my hands, my breath grew heavy and my body began to shake. I knew my mom was going to be walking in at any minute and I was going to have to tell her what he’d done to me.
The choice to report sexual abuse by a trusted adult be it coach, teacher, youth leader, priest or rabbi, is simply terrifying. In addition to the self-doubt, embarrassment, and shame, your head fills with questions such as, “Who and how do I tell?” “What will happen next?” “Will anyone believe me?” “What if this is somehow my fault?” I had those questions filling my head for two years before I spoke out. If I hadn’t learned about the other victims, those questions would have prevented me from speaking out for a much longer period of time – I am sure well into my adulthood. Children rely on adults for everything. It should come as no surprise that most survivors of child sexual abuse never report; and those that do report often wait decades until they possess the insight and self-confidence to reveal the nightmare that was their life.
The fact that it takes most survivors of child sexual abuse years to come forward is well- known by both mental health experts and lay people alike, but sadly, it is not reflected in the laws of states such as New York. Current New York law requires most victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abusers by the age of 23. If passed, the Child Victims Act would extend the statute of limitations to age 50 in civil cases, age 28 in criminal cases, and would create a one-year window for anyone to bring a lawsuit, even if the statute of limitations had expired.
Not surprisingly some of the primary opponents of the bill include the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jewish groups and the Boy Scouts of America. These respected institutions urge that the one-year window will result in a wave of claims that will lead to bankruptcy. Instead of worrying about their financial bottom line, their focus should be on the high cost of trauma caused by sexual abuse. Offenders and their enablers should bear the costs of the pain they create, not taxpayers.
Now is the time for change. Now is the time for New York state to open its courthouse doors and give survivors of sexual abuse the justice they’ve long been waiting for and justly deserve. Pass the Child Victims Act. Your children and your children’s children will thank you.